The Price of Paying for "Peer Review"

There is a new scandal taking hold of college admissions, focusing on "peer reviewing" pieces by high school students.

By Al Dickenson — July 10, 2023

The Price of Paying for "Peer Review"

How far would you go to get into your dream school?

In recent years, there has been a lot of buzz around college admissions and how students (or parents/guardians) can gain advantages over their peers. These "advantages" ranged from bribery to outright fabrication of academic or athletic prowess. These scandals were taking place at some of the nation's top colleges, including Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the University of San Diego, but also happened at smaller institutions, like Wake Forest University.

Now, there is a new scandal taking hold of college admissions, focusing on "peer reviewing" pieces by high school students.

The independent investigative outlet ProPublica was the first to report on this new event. This new scandal not only degrades the value of actual, peer reviewed research, but it also lessens the merits of college student applicants, be they published or not.

The scandal comes from events in the last few years, where parents have been paying for their high school students' "research" to be "peer reviewed." (One example given in the ProPublica article was a first-person, customer endorsement of the chicken sandwich fast food franchise, Chick-fil-A wherein the author, a 17-year old girl, writes that Chick-fil-A "is the perfect blend to have me wanting more after every bite".) Or, more specifically, parents are paying to have the work(s) published, regardless of if the product has any academic merit or if it was reviewed by anyone, including field experts, before becoming publicly accessible.

By behaving in this manner, parents are simultaneously lessening the impact of actual, truly researched material and also cutting the legs out from under those they are attempting to boost: the students.

The problem arises when publications that are paid to peer review research decide to publish content without vetting it, in a loophole they call a "preprint." All of a sudden, content is available to the public, not having been vetted in any meaningful way, on the site of a journal with a scholarly sounding name and has an online presence, and so therefore is "recognized." Readers would have to search for the fact that this article they are reading is not actually peer reviewed and instead in the preprint platform. This is behavior that is dishonest, but also misleading and harmful to actual peer reviewed content and the process of peer review itself. When publication becomes the objective over accuracy, there is no telling what can be said or read online or what harmful effects this methodology could have.

What is Peer Review?:
A peer reviewed piece of research is, simply put, one that is published in an accredited, recognized journal and reviewed by in-field experts, but it is so much more than that. Research is usually conducted by experts in the field, someone with a graduate degree or other extensive experience or research in a topic. So, for example, if you were hoping to publish a piece about 13th century Indonesian poetry, it would be expected that you have a master's degree or Ph.D. in Indonesian literature, history, or culture. Then, when you go to publish the work, other experts in that same subject would review your work, check your sources, and vouch for or invalidate your research hypothesis and/or conclusion. That is peer review in a nutshell. In the instance of this newest college admissions scandal, the best of peer reviewing practices are totally disregarded in favor of the push to publish and have a shareable link. As one student indicated in the report, it does not matter if the content has been reviewed — all that matters is that there is a piece of published work you can share with those who ask (or do not ask).

What is Wrong with Paying for "Peer Review"?:
Much of the time, academic journals will have a host of work to send to subcontractors, in this case, academics. Most of these subcontractors, in this case peer reviewers, are compensated for their time in some way. Therefore, technically speaking, there is nothing inherently wrong with paying for peer reviewed content.

The problem lies here: the parents of these students are directly paying reviewers and publishers, without any checks and balances or the benefit of what is known as the "double blind review" process. The double blind review process is where the reviewer does not know whose research he is reviewing, nor does the reviewee know who is reviewing the research. With this new college admissions scandal, the reviewers and the reviewees often know each other, or know of each other. Not only does this raise questions of impartiality, but it also pushes up against generally held ethics. Would you give a fair assessment of someone's work if they are the ones paying you? Additionally, as people are apt to base opinions off of recommendations, especially those of credentialed, seemingly intelligent and honest people, school admissions counselors will make a push for those prospective students who are published with mentors of renown.

This scandal throws those previously established rules to the wind. Students in these programs are mentored and often reviewed by their own mentor, thereby destroying any impartiality. In some cases, the students are not even writing much of their own content, instead having their mentors publish their own research. This method of "peer review" does not lend itself to honesty or integrity in any meaningful way.

Bettering the Peer Review Process:
It is also important to note that just because you have a piece of work that is public-facing, does not mean that you cannot improve in your writing or researching techniques. While the primary objective of the peer review process is to ensure accuracy in content, another major goal is to better the content as it sits. Instead of just publishing the first draft someone sends in, the journal's editorial board and peer reviewers will oftentimes work to clarify the article's language or structure. Chances are, if you have items up for peer review, you already may have excellent writing skills, but there are always methods to sharpen them. As such, just because you may have a piece published, there could be ways of improving the writing for readers' ease of reading.

There have been comments made in recent years that high school students who are published before college often have difficulty accepting criticism in their writing. Since writing is one of the main methods of communication for so many, it is very important to get it right. The college professors, most of whom are peer reviewed and published themselves, are there to help the college students with their writing. Editing is an important aspect of both college and the peer review process, as well as life itself.

Larger-scale Impacts:
In a sense, this new scandal about peer review is the easy way out. It gives no credence to the merits of others, nor even the perpetrators. Instead, all that this scandal does is show that money talks. But what speaks louder? Money or merit? ProPublica reported that families pay anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 for inclusion in the process, and that there could be upwards of twelve thousand students in these programs.

History indicates that merit usually wins at the end of the day. Cheapening yourself and an entire established system does no one any favors, least of all yourself, especially if criminally charged, like so many in the previous large-scale scandal.

But this behavior does more than just cheapen the review process. At a time when the average person already has trouble trusting established institutions, with or without merit, this action also makes young people cynical about peer review. Instead of students learning how to research or think critically, they learn that if you have money, you can buy the answer. Is that the sort of precedent to look up to?

So, in short, when searching for colleges or applying to them, do not do any unethical activities. Obviously, bribing officials is never a good option, but neither is lying about what constitutes "peer reviewed research" or "published works." Instead, focus on merit-based options in your application materials. Show the college's your excellent test scores, your leadership ability, critical thinking skills, or something else that is truly your own hard work. Buying your way into a school is the easy way, and you will never appreciate your education as much as if you had earned it outright.

Al Dickenson

Al Dickenson

Al Dickenson graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College with bachelor’s degrees in history, communication, and English. He currently serves as an editor for an international equine practitioners’ magazine in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his hometown, where he lives with his wife.
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